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Coming of Age

Eulogy for an Oil Painter

Originally delivered October 9, 2017

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I was first exposed to the irresistible charm of Frank Boros at the very end of 1982. I was coming off my first real relationship, where I hadn’t exactly been the model of fidelity, but was determined to play the field for a while. So I was drinking a beer amid the standing-room-only crowd at Wildwood when he appeared out of nowhere, said a cheerful “Hello,” then offered a steady stream of catty reviews of the crowd. He was tall, handsome, blonde-and-blue-eyed, a bit older—nowhere near what might have been considered my type, such as it was in those days. (Only years later did I realize how pale I was for his preference scale.) But it didn’t take long for him to invite me to his place, just across the street.

I figured, “What the hell. Why not?”

I’ll spare you the details of what was staged in the loft on 74th Street that night, but I’ll tell you I came away with the peculiar sense that I was being auditioned by a world-class director, who knew exactly how he wanted the choreography to work. Granted, there would be a zany outburst of Ethel Merman or a campy take on a torch song, but the lighting was important, and I was expected to know my mark.

The performance was repeated several times over the next few weeks, but it never quite clicked. Finally, we said, almost simultaneously, “Look, this isn’t working. But I really like you. Let’s be friends.”

We made each other laugh. And that counted for a lot.

We met often, for dinner, or drinks, or a show, sometimes with our respective boyfriends in tow. He told me stories of grand suburban life (complete with sports car) in Connecticut, of crazy days at Yale, of living homeless in the tunnels of Grand Central when he first came to New York, of playing the cute young thing to an older, closeted but influential gay world. He talked about the Broadway shows; I had even taken my kid brother to see “The Magic Show” a few years before.

Looking back, I think what we really bonded over was an unspoken sense of how it felt to be the Number One sons of successful fathers, who themselves were the sons of Eastern European immigrants. A sense of inadequacy and entitlement. A proud disconnect, for the paths we chose through refined and educated circles, yet a need to connect with our roots. His goulash was as good as my golumki.

I got him to go to his first gay pride march. Of course, he insisted we had to high-kick our way the entire route down Fifth Avenue.

Frank encouraged me to go freelance, which gave us more time together during the workday to critique each other’s work, or swap leads, as we danced our way through that crazed, go-go marketplace of New York in the 1980s.

He watched with interest when, in 1986, the first great love of my life was diagnosed with AIDS. It was my great moment of reckoning, the one every gay man seemed to need in those days: when the rumors were clarified, when the fog of confusion was lifted, when the walls of denial had to fall. This is real. This is us.

And he was there for me when I needed to vent my frustrations, sometimes with tears rolling down my cheeks. Of doctors who shrugged and ordered another set of tests. Of pulling strings to squeeze into the practice of the only doc in town who seemed to care. Of hospital staff in space suits. Of bizarre remedies and wacky dietary supplements. Of families, government and religion with no compassion. Worst of all, the frustration of just not knowing what to do.

When I lost Dean in early 1988, I encouraged Frank to get tested—still then, a highly controversial act. So it was me he chose to go with him to get his results. I remember the day, because it was my 35th birthday, a significance that was quickly lost, since the news was not what we wanted to hear.

We sat quietly in the little park on Ninth Avenue, adjacent to the Health Department in Chelsea. It was a beautiful June day. Finally, Frank just said—in Frank’s typically direct and determined way—“I’m going to beat this.” We didn’t go to lunch.

But what unfurled over the next couple of years was an astonishing transformation. He quit smoking and drinking, cold. He dredged my knowledge of doctors, experimental programs and support groups, then did his own research. He almost always dragged me along as his extra ears, and I often had to repeat back to him things he did not want to hear. As he grew increasingly impatient with the lack of sure answers, I sometimes found myself watching him lecture some health practitioner or other about what that professional should be doing, and what Frank intended to do for himself. I’d just have to shrug and smile.

Conventional Western medicine was not going to be enough. I witnessed a steady stream of homeopaths, naturopaths, chiropractors, herbalists (Chinese and otherwise), astrologers, faith healers and just plain charlatans. There wasn’t a health food or supplement Frank wouldn’t try, consuming with great diligence any tincture or odd plant, any snake oil or pond scum. Nightshades (tomatoes?!) were forbidden. And all produce was washed in bleach. We would chat in the evening over foul valerian tea. I was sometimes skeptical, but held back. Anything was worth trying in that desperate time, when there was no answer to the accursed virus, and opportunistic infections lurked everywhere.

I remember we took a road trip in 1990. He had to rush-deliver a set for an industrial in Corpus Christi, and hired me as co-driver and assistant. In the console of the rented van, and soon spread out along the front seat and dash, was a huge stash of repurposed prescription containers and bottles of odd liquids, plus a sizable wad of advance cash for travel expenses. Sure enough, Frank was barreling down the Interstate somewhere in way-western Virginia or Tennessee, and we’re pulled over by a trooper. I figured: Here’s two guys headed South in a van with New York plates, amply stocked with drugs and money. We’re dead.

But Frank gets out of the van and walks over to the patrol car, while I discreetly try to tidy up. Conversation and smiles, and the cop never approaches the van. Frank never told me what was said; he just downed a couple pills. So I just assumed it was another charmed performance.

Frank stayed healthy, for whatever reason. He felt good, and—as he loved to point out—he looked fabulous. He decided it was time to “get his priorities straight.” His complex health regimen came first, of course, along with the support groups he liked, and the self-help books and courses. But second—this was new—he was going to devote his life to painting. Until then, there was an occasional canvas on an easel in the various studios, but most of his talent went into the elaborate, and often beautiful, presentation boards he did for clients. Now, art for art’s sake, oil painting in particular, would be His Life.

He took the same meticulous, determined approach to painting that he did to his health. There would be drawing after drawing, then a watercolor study, then finally an oil on canvas would evolve. I’d drop by and we’d talk endlessly about color and composition. Since my mother was a painter and my major was art history, this was not unfamiliar territory for me. Frank would usually (but not always) ignore what I had to say. Still, I enjoyed the discussions a lot, and so did he.

Around this time, Frank was the catalyst for a support group based on Barbara Sher’s book “Wishcraft.” He recruited a remarkably diverse cast of characters from different aspects of his life, and brought us together once a month to articulate goals we had for ourselves, then work together to help each other break through any fears, limitations or obstacles that held us back. We met regularly for several years and—perhaps no surprise—each of us managed to actualize a major goal. Even better, we pulled together as a family. For Frank, I suspect it was the closest thing to family he would know in his adult life. And the core of us would stay that way for the rest of his life.

1992 was a difficult time for me; I was struggling with my writing, my career and my life in general. My long-time boyfriend ditched me. I had to let go of my apartment on West End; I bounced around to the Shore, to the Poconos, to sublets or shares in Washington Heights and Hell’s Kitchen. But Frank was thriving. He decided to take up studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, even found a (yes) fabulous loft in Center City. With a wood-burning fireplace, of course.

His chief problem was what to do about the studio on 74th Street. There was little question he’d return to New York, and when you have a cheap, rent-stabilized apartment in Manhattan, you don’t just let it go. So he offered it as a sublet to me. Totally illegal, of course, but for the next three and a half years I forged his name on rent checks and leases, and if the building noticed anything, they never said a word. I did some of my best work in that apartment, including my first book. And I will always be grateful to Frank for that time.

But those were also the worst years of the accelerating catastrophe of the AIDS epidemic. I lost many close friends in that time, and that studio was often a stage for grieving and ritual. I was burning out. Frank was not immune, either. After a couple of years in Philadelphia, he had gone to Maine to paint. But his health began to deteriorate rapidly, and it became apparent he needed to return to New York for the best medical care. We made a quick trade: he could have the apartment back immediately, and I would take off his hands the 1986 Ford LTD wagon that took me all the way to California, then Colorado. (For years I referred to this as trading in the cow for a handful of magic beans.)

Luckily for Frank (and many others), this was also the year that the first effective AIDS drugs became available. After this first serious scare, he gradually recovered. He resumed his idiosyncratic health regimen. And he painted furiously. As the canvases got larger, and his palette got richer, the paintings just got more spectacular. His one-man gallery show in late 1998 was nothing short of astonishing. His work was that good. The “portraits without people” concept was brilliant and effective. He was in all his glory.

Unfortunately, Frank was never able to establish a relationship with a mainstream gallery that could do well promoting him. He grumbled that there was “no market for representational art.” But I began to wonder if that was true, or if was just his noted ability to piss people off with high-handed attitude.

Frank didn’t hesitate to indulge his taste for the grand, often to the astonishment of those of us who knew him—and his resources—well. There were fancy dinners and parties, and he traveled much, from Bhutan to Virgin Gorda. He never got to visit my home in Oakland, and dismissed my invite to Denver with “Why would I want to go there?” I brought my new boyfriend—the man I would spend the next 15 years with—to New York for Christmas 1999. Frank simply announced he wasn’t good enough for me.

He grew disdainful of the many Western medications he was told to take. “Poison.” And he took them less.

It’s not unusual for people with AIDS—especially in those early years–to go through a health roller coaster: a sudden crisis, then recovery, a sense of normal, maybe even complacency. Then another sudden crisis. Frank went through many of these.

2001 was a turning point for many, but especially for Frank. He claimed to have seen the planes hit the towers that September; others present have assured me that wasn’t possible: he was already in a coma, brought down by toxoplasmosis, an opportunistic infection that attacks the brain. He also claimed to have died during this time, that he had gone through the tunnel and seen the light, but had decided to return. Nobody disputed that.

Something definitely did happen. When I finally got to New York the following spring, Susan warned me: “He’s changed.” And I would find that out the next day. I had invited him out to dinner, and he had insisted we go to an elegant but absurdly overpriced Italian restaurant nearby. Over the meal, I talked about my husband, our new house, our dog, my new career, and how much I enjoyed being just plain “normal.” He ate, then sneered, and gave me a stern, even angry lecture about how I was wasting my life, and that I needed to just come back to New York and write. Then he stormed out. Leaving me with the tab, of course.

What had been increasingly difficult to deal with in recent years was now nearly impossible.

Things were a bit frosty between us for the next few years. We rarely talked on the phone, and I didn’t always call him during visits to New York, once or twice a year. When I did, I never knew what to expect. He could be testy and judgmental one time, then funny and charming the next. I was assured it was brain damage from the toxo attack. Either way, I knew I’d end up paying the tab. And likely get hit up for some cash as well.

But any visit carried a bonus, because he would show me what he was working on. There were still oils in progress, some on commission, some just for fun. I noticed that the latter were taking a rougher, more abstract edge. They were beautiful. An even better surprise, though, was a new series of exquisite pencil drawings—the “graphites,” as he insisted they be called. He told me their purpose was to create a more affordable line that would attract more buyers, but it was clear he loved creating them. They showed off his well-honed drafting skills, but also his expressive touch with a simple line. There was a series of trees, both real and fanciful. There was a series of ocean waves. Eventually, there was even a series of geometric abstractions; when I suggested that these owed something to Russian Constructivism, he snorted with derision.

There was a softening that occurred between us, though, at the end of 2009. I came to New York for the holidays, still recovering from a medical accident, an unexpected job layoff, and a split from my husband. For the first time in a long time, he seemed kind and supportive. Perhaps this was the sort of drama he could appreciate.

Then again, he was working excitedly on a scheme for a one-man show in Paris, and he wanted me to fly over for the opening. I was contemplating a move from Denver to L.A. to start over (which he endorsed: “Now, there’s a place I’d come to visit you!”) and I was non-committal. It sounded a bit too grandiose for my wallet at the time. And maybe for his, too. I just paid the dinner tab.

I didn’t go to Paris, but I did move to L.A. And later, when Sly and I reconciled, and I returned to Denver, Frank never said a word.

The frequency of my visits to New York increased, however, because of health issues with my parents. I made a point of spending time with Frank whenever I was in town. The visits were good: there were always new graphites, and more oils in progress. The studio was cluttered with blank canvases of every size, and messy palettes of vivid color. We could both drool over a tube of lapis lazuli pigment, which he had to import from London to get the blue just right. I never questioned the extravagance, and apparently neither did he. The paint was like a semi-precious stone.

He seemed to have his old zest for life back, and had plunged full-force (was there any other way for Frank?) into online dating. He loved to point out how fabulous he still looked at 70. Of course he did.

Toward the end of 2014, after the death of my father, I went to stay with my mother for an indefinite period, to help her adjust. Every Friday I went to Manhattan for sanity’s sake, and often (ironically) that meant time with Frank. Maybe dinner or a film (occasionally he would cook for me!), but most of the time we just spent an evening talking.

Seeing him nearly every other week gave me a clearer picture of how he was failing. The neuropathy in his feet that he had struggled with for decades (does anyone else remember how he convinced his acupuncturist to wrap his feet in foil?) was getting worse. He had graduated from cane to walker (a fancy red one, of course), and then started to limit going out, unless he had his “car.” He would tell me about “accidents” he had, just crossing Columbus Avenue. Then laugh.

But those evening talks were pretty special. Sometimes, we’d just play with old-school, campy, witty repartee—the kind of conversation neither of us could find anymore. And sometimes they would take a more serious turn. “I have only one regret,” he said to my surprise, “that I don’t have a partner.” Now, when you have more than 30 years of history with someone, you could easily snark, “It’s not like you didn’t have some great options.” But I couldn’t say that. Instead, I just cried inside for his loneliness. I understood.

As it happened, I was in California for a week in late June 2015, when I got the texts from Susan and Jacques. Frank had taken a serious turn. This could be it. We even discussed a memorial. When I got back to New York, I went to Mount Sinai, and could see they weren’t exaggerating. He was barely conscious, let alone cogent. He had a 24-hour attendant in his room. We took turns spoon-feeding him.

This went on for weeks. And weeks. And then, sure enough, he came through. Sorta.

I’m not sure how much I want to say about the ensuing years. It’s not pretty. There would more of that roller coaster in his physical health. As a friend of mine, a noted psychic who was also a friend of Frank’s, summed it up, “He certainly is a persistent soul.”

But his mental health was a steadier slope down. There was less and less of Frank every week I saw him. It became clear to those close to him that we could never allow him to be independent again. And that seemed to matter less and less to him, too.

I do want to acknowledge Susan and Jacques, and Judith, for their extraordinary efforts to keep Frank’s life possible. We all need to thank them for their time, patience and love. And I’d also want to thank the kind staff at the Long Island Care Center, at Mount Sinai, and at the Actors’ Fund. You do amazing work.

When I think of Frank, I want to remember those evenings of witty repartee and blunt emotional honesty. And maybe of high-kicking down Fifth Avenue.

Buddy, you could be the most exasperating of friends: arrogant, rude, self-absorbed, but also kind, generous and supportive. You were always an inspiration, with your dogged enthusiasm for every aspect of life, and for the beauty and vision you created in this world. Thank you for allowing our paths to be joined for so long.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Eulogy for an Oil Painter

  1. WOW Ed!!!

    such diamond clarity in your writing , descriptive, engaging, full of details that render him colorful and nuanced, can’t be put down without finishing story Of course it is your story too but lets him shine.

    thanks for sharing

    >

    Posted by Karen LeGault | December 13, 2018, 3:47 am
  2. Such a powerful testament to a life lived large and out loud… Beautiful writing… and Frank is both a caution and an encouragement to living life to the fullest! Thanks, Ed.

    >

    Posted by Ann Keeler Evans | December 13, 2018, 12:39 pm

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